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Are you guilty of doomscrolling? What is it and how to stop it

Originally posted on irishexaminer.

Ireland ranks sixth in Europe for scrolling on our phones. Geraldine Walsh looks at why we do – and how to unplug from the destructive habit

A specific kind of agitation settles on my shoulders as I hop from news apps to social media feeds. Ten minutes pass. Twenty. The same words crop up as I click to expand, skim through articles, and hit the back button to scroll again, getting lost in threads, becoming enraged by comments, and digesting only brief but consistent pockets of information that pull my attention in a very limited and destructive way.

Completely lost in a never-ending feed, half an hour has disappeared. Almost everything I have read or glanced upon has been disheartening, depressing, sad, troubling, and difficult because my brain has wired itself to examine the negative. I find it difficult to put my phone down, and if I do, it’s not long before I pick it back up again. Scrolling incessantly for anything new to validate the anxiousness and tension flooding throughout my body.

Sound familiar? This is doomscrolling, and it has become rampant in the past few years as we find ourselves consumed by panic, chaos, confusion, and worry. As a result, we struggle to find hope, security, safety, and control in our ailing world as we navigate disasters through the online arena.

In a study by Lenstore, Ireland ranked sixth  in Europe for scrolling the most on phones. Irish people were found to spend on average 2 hrs 24 mins per day scrolling, with the likelihood of doomscrolling in our current climate higher than usual. After all, during times of crisis and uncertainty, we tend to pay more attention to the news to find answers and make sense of our world. While many of us may not recognise we are doomscrolling until a sizeable portion of time ticks away in what feels like minutes, many of us have likely succumbed to scrolling on our devices in a damaging and harmful way.

Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, notes that anecdotally she has witnessed a link between doomscrolling and anxiety and insomnia, particularly in those who scroll for adverse news before bed. “I think there has always been a tendency to focus on negative news,” says Burke. “It’s the reason we cannot stop ourselves from looking at a car crash. The front page of our newspapers is generally where the most negative news lives. It draws us in, and that’s why it’s displayed so prominently.”

Doomscrolling is essentially a human reaction to everything we are currently going through. The world is spinning, and we are spinning or rather scrolling with it. We react by consistently searching for answers because our primitive brain is working hard to keep us alive. It perceives a threat, and as a result, we are hanging in a suspended state of high alert.

Added to our spiralling world, we are inundated with constant media coverage of every real and potential threat with sensationalist headlines to grab and feed us. Social media apps use algorithms that show damaging content to vulnerable users with poor user control. And let’s not forget that we are overwhelmed by every side of the argument, highly opinionated peers, keyboard warriors and trolls, and incessant fake news. At this stage of crisis, many of us have a broken filter, and everything negative easily seeps through, but scrolling has become an addiction spurred on by social media.

Neuro-linguistic programming coach Rebecca Lockwood says, “When you post an update on social media which receives engagement, you are instantly hit with a shot of dopamine. Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters which helps send emotional responses to the body and see rewards. The body then takes action towards rewards. When it comes to social media, likes and comments are the ‘rewards’ that can become extremely addictive, leaving us endlessly scrolling without even being aware of it.”

To counter the adverse effects of scrolling, including poor mental health, insomnia, stress, panic, and worry, Burke advises choosing an image as our phone’s screen saver or a word that represents what we’d rather be doing instead of constantly scrolling. “Considering most of us check our phones 55 times per day and some of us even 100 times,” she says, “this is a great visual reminder of a more valuable way to spend our precious time.”

She also advocates for what she refers to as wait training. “Start to carve out short periods when you have your phone switched off or left at home and gradually increase the wait period until you check it again,” she says. “This was how I started to curtail my phone use. Getting a taste of the clear headspace, this created inspired me to carve out longer periods when I didn’t have my phone on me.”

Lockwood also reinforces simple brain training methods to curb our addiction to scrolling, including checking your phone at allocated times, turning off notifications, leaving the phone in another room, and deleting social media apps. While all these methods seem simplified and obvious, they can be some of the hardest things to do when social media addiction occurs.

“Setting an allocated amount of time to scroll through your phone is an extremely effective method of cutting down your screen time,” says Lockwood. “By doing so, you will become much more present both with yourself and the people around you.”

The same can be said for turning off notifications and setting your phone aside. “For some, turning off their notifications may not be enough to keep themselves away from their devices,” says Lockwood. “Creating some distance between you and your phone is important, especially when spending quality time with a loved one. By doing so, you make space for real connections and conversations.”

Deleting social media apps may be a big and daunting step for many of us, but there is a valid reason for doing so. Certain apps can have the most impact on our doomscrolling. For me, it’s Twitter. The unrelenting negativity is all-consuming as I veer from one thread to another and read every mercilessly opinionated comment passing judgement.

Lockwood’s suggestion to delete apps will help with the habit and amount of time spent on scrolling and reduce the negative impact social media may have. While my Twitter usage amps up my doomscrolling, I also use the app for work, so deleting it is an unworkable solution. So instead, I have attempted to train myself to be mindful in my approach to scrolling.

Doomscrolling is a mindless habit led by fear. It’s all fingers and thumbs and dry eyes. Burke reminds us that the Dalai Lama said, “whether technology’s effect is good or bad depends on the user. It’s important that we shouldn’t be slaves to technology; it should help us.”

“To that end,” Burke says, “it’s up to us to manage our phone use and manage our exposure to negative news.”

This means checking in with ourselves more often and asking how this makes us feel as we are fed unhelpful and overwhelming content. It means finding another activity to counter the constant scrolling and actively telling ourselves to Stop!

Limiting our doomscrolling habits allows us to take control, feel safer, and reframe our thoughts about certain situations. The world can be scary. Control the controllable.

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